Skip to Content

From the President: Priming the Innovation Pipeline

How to keep new-science ideas from getting stuck in the lab.

August 18, 2015

Today in the United States, we depend on a highly optimized, venture-capital-driven system to bring innovation to market. This system works beautifully for digital technologies and for tangible innovations that are based on established science and technology.

MIT president L. Rafael Reif

But the current system leaves a vital category of innovation stranded: new ideas based on new science. Self-fertilizing plants. Bacteria that can synthesize biofuels. Safe nuclear energy. Affordable desalination at scale. It takes time—perhaps 10 years—for such new-science ideas to trek from lab to market, often including time to invent new manufacturing processes. That’s too long for most venture capitalists. The result? As a nation, we are leaving a great deal of potential innovation stuck in the lab.

The United States needs a more systematic way to help its new-science innovators deliver their ideas to the world. That calls for accelerating a two-stage process: from idea to investment, and from investment to impact.

To create a new way of supporting the first stage—from idea to investment—a coalition of funders from the public, for-profit, and not-for-profit sectors could work together to establish “innovation orchards.” These would provide what universities alone cannot: the physical space, mentoring, and bridge funding for entrepreneurs to turn new-science concepts into workable products, up to the point that they meet venture capital’s typical five-year threshold for the journey from investment to market impact. This would make investing in tangible or tangible-digital hybrid innovations no riskier than investing in the purely digital.

A second approach: find ways to shorten the full span from idea to impact, reducing it from, say, 10 years to five. There’s a growing body of evidence from MIT and elsewhere that in a range of high-potential “tangible” fields such as nanomanufacturing and materials science, it may be possible to reproduce the process of rapid, relatively low-cost refinement and iteration that is so powerful in advancing purely digital concepts. We could also speed the process by helping researchers more efficiently master the best practices of the most effective new-science entrepreneurs.

There may be even better ways to capitalize on this lost potential. At MIT—where people work so hard to pioneer new science and new-science technologies—I believe we need to help create an innovation pipeline that delivers every drop.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.